WASHINGTON — President Trump, seeking to justify his claim of a hurricane threat to Alabama, pressed aides to intervene with a federal scientific agency, leading to a highly unusual public rebuke of the forecasters who contradicted him, according to people familiar with the events.
In response to the president’s request, Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, told Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary, to have the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration publicly correct the forecasters, who had insisted that Alabama was not actually at risk from Hurricane Dorian.
A senior administration official, who asked not to be identified discussing internal matters, said Mr. Trump told his staff to have NOAA “clarify” the forecasters’ position. NOAA, which is part of the Commerce Department, then issued an unsigned statement saying the Birmingham, Ala., office of the National Weather Service was wrong to refute the president’s warning so categorically.
But the statement only intensified the uproar over Mr. Trump’s storm prediction as critics accused his administration of politicizing the weather. The Commerce Department inspector general has opened an investigation, and on Wednesday, a Democrat-controlled House science committee kicked off its own inquiry.
As a result, the furor over Mr. Trump’s storm prediction has evolved from a momentary embarrassment into a sustained political liability for the administration — no longer just a question of a president unwilling to admit a mistake but now a White House seemingly willing to pressure scientists to validate it.
The New York Times reported this week that Mr. Ross warned NOAA’s acting administrator that top employees at the agency could be fired if the situation were not addressed. Mr. Ross’s spokesman has denied that he threatened to fire anyone. A senior official on Wednesday said that if Mr. Ross did make such threats, it was not at the direction of Mr. Mulvaney.
After The Times disclosed Mr. Mulvaney’s role on Wednesday, The Washington Post reported that he was acting at Mr. Trump’s direction, which the senior official confirmed to The Times. But when Mr. Trump was asked by a reporter if he told his chief of staff to instruct NOAA to “disavow those forecasters,” he denied it.
“No, I never did that,” Mr. Trump said. “I never did that. That’s a whole hoax by the fake news media. When they talk about the hurricane and when they talk about Florida and they talk about Alabama, that’s just fake news. It was — right from the beginning, it was a fake story.”
The White House had no comment beyond the president’s remarks. The senior official made a distinction between telling NOAA to “disavow” the forecast and to “clarify” it. The White House argument was that the forecasters had gone too far and that the president was right to suggest there had been models showing a possible impact on Alabama.
The release of the NOAA statement provoked complaints that the Trump administration was improperly intruding in the professional weather forecasting system to rationalize an inaccurate presidential assertion. In opening its investigation, the Commerce Department’s inspector general said the events could call into question scientific independence.
The House Committee on Science, Space and Technology expressed similar concerns as it announced its own investigation into Mr. Ross’s actions on Wednesday.
“We are deeply disturbed by the politicization of NOAA’s weather forecast activities for the purpose of supporting incorrect statements by the president,” wrote Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, the chairwoman of the committee, along with Representative Mikie Sherrill, the chairman of its oversight panel.
The latest challenge to Mr. Trump’s credibility has its origins in one of the more prosaic duties a president has: warning the nation when natural disasters like Hurricane Dorian threaten communities.
On Sept. 1, as Dorian gathered strength over the Atlantic and headed toward the East Coast, the president wrote on Twitter that Alabama, among other states, “will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated.” Earlier forecast maps had suggested that Alabama might see some effects from the edge of the storm, but by the time of the president’s tweet, the predictions had already changed.
A few minutes after Mr. Trump’s tweet, the National Weather Service in Birmingham posted its own message on Twitter flatly declaring that “Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian. We repeat, no impacts from Hurricane #Dorian will be felt across Alabama.” The forecasters were correct; Alabama was not struck by the hurricane.
Nonetheless, Mr. Trump was furious at being challenged and kept insisting for days that he had been right. He displayed or posted outdated maps, including one that had been apparently altered with a Sharpie pen to make it look like Alabama might still be in the path of the storm. He had his homeland security adviser release a statement backing him up.
After Mr. Trump told his staff on Sept. 5 to address the matter, Mr. Mulvaney called Mr. Ross, who was in Greece traveling for meetings. Mr. Ross then called Neil Jacobs, the acting administrator of NOAA, at home around 3 a.m. Friday, Washington time, and instructed him to clear up the agency’s contradiction of the president, according to three people informed about the discussions.
Dr. Jacobs objected to the demand and was told that the political appointees at NOAA would be fired if the situation were not fixed, according to the three individuals, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the episode. The political staff at an agency typically includes a handful of top officials, such as Dr. Jacobs, and their aides. They are appointed by the administration currently in power, as opposed to career government employees, who remain as administrations come and go.
The statement NOAA ultimately issued later on Friday faulted the Birmingham office for a tweet that “spoke in absolute terms that were inconsistent with probabilities from the best forecast products available at the time.”
Dr. Jacobs has since sought to reassure his work force and the broader scientific community concerned about political interference.
“This administration is committed to the important mission of weather forecasting,” Dr. Jacobs said at a weather conference on Tuesday in Huntsville, Ala. “There is no pressure to change the way you communicate or forecast risk in the future.”
In the speech, Dr. Jacobs praised Mr. Trump, calling him “genuinely interested in improving weather forecasts,” and echoed the president’s position that Dorian initially threatened Alabama. “At one point, Alabama was in the mix, as was the rest of the Southeast.”
He also said he still had faith in the Birmingham office. “The purpose of the NOAA statement was to clarify the technical aspects of the potential impacts of Dorian,” Dr. Jacobs said. “What it did not say, however, is that we understand and fully support the good intent of the Birmingham weather forecast office, which was to calm fears in support of public safety.”
Unassuaged, the House science panel has demanded documents and information related to the NOAA statement and its origins.
In addition to emails, memos, texts and records of telephone calls, the committee asked Mr. Ross to answer a number of questions, including whether any representative of the Executive Office of the President directed NOAA to issue Friday’s statement or specify the language in it.
Committee members also reminded Mr. Ross of statements that he made under oath in his confirmation hearing that he would not interfere with science, particularly at NOAA, which in addition to weather forecasting is the agency responsible for understanding and predicting changes in the earth’s climate.
“Science should be done by scientists,” Mr. Ross testified in that January 2017 hearing. “I support the release of factual scientific data.”
When President Trump displayed a large map of Hurricane Dorian’s path in the Oval Office on Wednesday, it was hard to miss a black line that appeared to have been drawn to extend the storm’s possible path into the state of Alabama.
That might have been intended to bolster Mr. Trump’s claim on Sunday when he tweeted that “in addition to Florida — South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated.”
Never mind that the Alabama office of the National Weather Service quickly responded to Mr. Trump’s original claim by insisting that “Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian.”
“We repeat, no impacts from Hurricane #Dorian will be felt across Alabama,” the office tweeted. “The system will remain too far east.”
So did Mr. Trump — who frequently uses black Sharpie pens to sign legislation — add the mark to justify his unfounded claim about the dangers faced by residents of the Cotton State?
Or did someone else in his administration clumsily modify the map so that it would appear to back up the president?
The black line on the map was drawn to look like the top of the so-called cone of uncertainty that is familiar to weather watchers. The line curved through the southwest corner of Georgia and the southeast corner of Alabama, and into the Gulf of Mexico.
A spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security said that he was unclear what the black line on the map was referring to and that he needed to gather additional information. He later referred questions about the map to the White House.
Asked about the marking on the map, Mr. Trump told reporters that he did not know how it got there. “I don’t know,” he said on Wednesday while insisting that his assertion about the dangers that Alabama faced had been right all along.
“We had many models, each line being a model, and they were going directly through. And in all cases, Alabama was hit, if not lightly, then in some cases, pretty hard,” Mr. Trump said.
“They actually gave that a 95 percent chance probability,” he said. “It turned out that that was not what happened. It made the right turn up the coast. But Alabama was going to be hit very hard, along with Georgia. But under the current, they won’t be.”
The president did not say where he got that information, which is directly contradicted by days of reports from the National Weather Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, neither of which publicly reported any threat to Alabama from the hurricane.
Governors in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia have declared emergencies as Dorian grew into a monster storm in the Atlantic. Alabama’s governor did not.
But Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary, on Wednesday released an internal map that she said Mr. Trump was shown on Sunday as he traveled from Camp David back to the White House.
The map provided by the White House shows the impact of Dorian touching parts of Georgia and a small corner of Alabama, much like the black line that was drawn on the larger map Mr. Trump displayed in the Oval Office.
“I just know that Alabama was in the original forecast,” Mr. Trump said on Wednesday. “They thought it would get it as a piece of it.”
Later in the day, Mr. Trump tweeted a map from the South Florida Water Management District that he said supported his contention that Dorian heading for Alabama.
“This was the originally projected path of the Hurricane in its early stages,” he said. “As you can see, almost all models predicted it to go through Florida also hitting Georgia and Alabama. I accept the Fake News apologies!”
However, the map came with a warning that information from the National Hurricane Center and local emergency officials superseded it: “If anything on this graphic causes confusion, ignore the entire product.”39.9K people are talking about this
Mr. Trump also responded on Wednesday to reports that he had suggested to Vice President Mike Pence that he stay at one of Mr. Trump’s resorts while on an trip to meet with top officials in Ireland.
Mr. Pence’s decision to stay at the Trump International Golf Links & Hotel in Doonbeg drew criticism because it meant that the vice president was more than two hours away from Dublin, where his official meetings were being held.
Mr. Pence has family roots in Doonbeg, and Marc Short, the vice president’s chief of staff, told reporters on Tuesday that it was the president who suggested his hotel when he heard that Mr. Pence was traveling to Ireland.
“It’s like when we went through the trip, it’s like, ‘Well, he’s going to Doonbeg because that’s where the Pence family is from,’” Mr. Short said. “It’s like, ‘Well, you should stay at my place.’”
But on Wednesday, Mr. Trump denied that.
“I had no involvement, other than it’s a great place,” Mr. Trump said, adding: “I heard he was going there, but it wasn’t my idea for Mike to go there. Mike went there because his family’s there. That’s my understanding of it.”
Mr. Trump said he did not suggest that Mr. Pence stay at his property.
“I don’t suggest anything,” he insisted.